When it comes to learning, the term “engagement” is never far away. Since we often refer to it, we might think that it is clearly defined and that its mechanisms are well understood, which is not the case. Before looking for solutions to optimize the engagement of learners in training, it is necessary to know what it is and what the research says about it. Here are some key elements that can help you.
A complex notion in search of a redefinition. The notion of learning engagement is complex, multidimensional and multifactorial. In addition, there is a wide variety of theories that attempt to explain it and that often apply to very specific contexts.
Gaëlle Molinari and her colleagues (2014), who studied it in the context of online learning, found that there was a lack of rigour in handling this notion. “In the North American literature, much research is based on a definition of common sense that is not based on a specific theoretical basis,” they point out. Although this notion is not easy to define and implement, Molinari and his collaborators suggest that it may be time to adopt a more comprehensive definition that is valid in various contexts.
A state and a process. Despite the multitude of definitions of learning engagement, researchers agree that it is a state and process in which the cognitive, behavioural, emotional and social (or socio-emotional) dimensions interact with each other. In addition, several authors recognize that engagement in a training program — where several external variables come into play: content, platform, social context, expected results, etc. — and engagement in the very act of learning are discinct (Axelson and Flick, 2010; Bourgeois, 2011; Carré and al., 2001).
Engagement in online training. To date, few studies have examined engagement in the context of elearning, but there is growing interest in the subject. For the purposes of their study, researchers who tried to find an effective way to measure engagement in elearning proposed the following definition:
“Engagement [in elearning] involves students using time and energy to learn materials and skills, demonstrating that learning, interacting in a meaningful way with others in the class (enough so that those people become “real”), and becoming at least somewhat emotionally involved with their learning (i.e., getting excited about an idea, enjoying the learning and/or interaction). Engagement is composed of individual attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors as well as communication with others.” (Dixson, 2015)
Fluctuations and motivation. The engagement fluctuates over time and takes place in several phases. Some (Molinari and al., 2014) see three stages: engagement-disengagement-reengagement; while others (O’Brien and Toms, 2008) distinguish four: the beginning of engagement-long engagement period-disengagement-reengagement.
Motivation is the core of this fluctuation. To get involved in learning, you have to be “motivated”. Motivation is defined as a “psychological process responsible for initiating, maintaining, supporting or stopping a behaviour. It is in a way the force that drives us to act and think in one way or another” (Universalis). There is a consensus that motivation is based on the interaction of intrinsic (or internal) and extrinsic (external) factors.
Emotions and types of motivation. In conclusion, let us put an accent on the fact that engagement has several dimensions, including an emotional dimension that is crucial for perseverance and re-engagement (Molinari and al., 2014). While intrinsic motivational factors are associated with emotional engagement from the outset, this is not the case for extrinsic motivational factors. However, the latter are also vectors of emotions, positive or negative, without forgetting that they are the ones on which we can directly intervene in the design of a training program (see The importance of emotions in learning). Some of the extrinsic motivational factors that emerge as the most important in elearning include the teaching and learning process, the role of the trainer and the elearning environment (Selvi, 2010).
It, therefore, seems essential to pay as much attention to intrinsic factors as to extrinsic factors, by designing training courses that will arouse emotions that, in turn, will encourage the learners to persevere in their engagement!
Motivation and serious games. With regard to the importance of the online training environment for motivation, the studies that have examined serious games are particularly enlightening, since “the quality of the experience” is at the heart of this type of training, whose fun nature aims to instill a desire to repeat the learning experience (O’Brien and Toms, 2008).
These researches, therefore, show that the technological infrastructure in the broad sense of the term is important, but also the aesthetic, sensory and stimulating character, interactivity, variety, novelty, the presence of feedback, as well as the possibility given to the learner to feel a certain control over the progress of his/her learning and his/her time management. It should be noted that several studies have found that learner engagement tends to decline when the technological infrastructure appears to be either too difficult or too easy to use (Carroll and Thomas, 1988; Hinckley, Pausch, Goble and Kassell, 1994; O’Brien and Toms, 2008).